The Walking Dead’s Khary Payton on Getting Into ‘Zeke Mode’ and Petting an Invisible Tiger

Photo: Getty Images, AMC

King Ezekiel has finally graced us with his presence. As suspected, in the second episode of The Walking Dead, Morgan and Carol have made their way to The Kingdom, a new outpost that continues to expand the world of the show as well as the size of its recurring cast. Ezekiel, played by Khary Payton, is one of the most colorful characters to ever come onto the show, speaking in magisterial tones and accompanied by a pet tiger named Shiva. (Really though, before the apocalypse, he was just a zookeeper with a penchant for community theater.) Vulture spoke with Payton about his elaborate wig and costume, getting into “Zeke mode,” shooting with an animatronic tiger and, well, an invisible one.

Happy Halloween! Have you seen anyone dress up as your character Ezekiel yet?
I have. I saw one guy. I went to my first Walker Stalker Friday and Saturday and actually, now that I think about it, there were three. Three Ezekiels, and so I have to give them credit because that’s not an easy costume to come up with. There are a lot of accessories that go along with that deal.

Speaking of, what’s the process for getting into costume and hair and makeup? I feel like, of all the characters, you have one of the more elaborate looks.
Yeah. They definitely put a lot of stuff on me. Fortunately, we’ve got it down to a science. My makeup and hair team are obviously really good at what they do. I get the wig on in maybe 20 minutes or so, and at this point I just dive into the costume and we start rolling. I wish I’d been wearing the costume for the fall and not the summer. I’m feeling pretty good about my crazy pleather coat I have to wear in October and November, but it took forever for the temperature to finally come down to something reasonable.

I feel like the wig would be something during the summertime.
You know, I shaved my head and that helped a lot. I had my mini Afro going, and I shaved that as soon as I got fitted. I figured one head of hair is hot enough. You don’t need two. It’s actually not too bad. I worked as a stuntman years ago and I had a crazy rubber creature demon costume on, and it was like 115 degrees in that thing and 100 percent humidity. When it’s 115 degrees inside a suit, that’s when your perspective changes and everything just makes you angry. That’s my benchmark for what truly sucks. This was always a little bit less than that, so I never had to worry. I was never like, Okay, this is the worst, because I’ve seen worse.

You’ve done a considerable amount of voice work, and I noticed that you use it to switch between versions of Ezekiel. How did you differentiate King Ezekiel from the pre-apocalypse Ezekiel?
That was the thing. I went at it from a vocal perspective. In the script it talks about his physicality changing in that moment where he goes from Ezekiel to “Zeke mode,” as I like to call it. I always felt that, when I read it at least, it was more about how his vocal quality changed, and then that served to change his physicality. All the Shakespeare from college and throughout my 20s that I had done and all of the voice work in my 30s and into my 40s really helped prepare me for the role. I was oddly and uniquely qualified to do this particular thing.

What do you make of Ezekiel’s make-believe fantasy world that he has created for people?
It’s not make-believe! It’s not a fantasy world! Chris Hardwick was saying that same thing, and I was like, “Why are you calling it a fantasy world?” It’s not a fantasy. It’s real. This is how he copes. He doesn’t cope like everybody else, but that doesn’t mean it’s a fantasy. He didn’t start calling himself a king, and people just decided to follow him on that. He carried himself a certain way and they started called him a king. You know when you get introduced to a guy with a tiger, you don’t say hello from five feet away; you say hello from 50 yards away. He’s going to use his big voice, and after a while people get comfortable with that. It’s like when you’re on the stump, making a speech as a president or senator, you don’t talk the same way you did when you’re just sitting down to have coffee with somebody. We all have these roles that we play, but just because he happens to sound like a medieval king, I don’t think it’s crazy to say, I’m going to treat this particular reality differently in order to survive and keep my sanity. There are zombies, there are walking dead all over the place. I need something. This actually helps me feel a little more real in this hellhole of a world that I’m living in.

I think fiction helps other people organize the world better. It’s more important for other people than Ezekiel maybe.
Yeah, one hand washes the other. He needs this in order to build structure, build boundaries that they can live around. The fact that we have this country and elections and all of this at the end of the day, it’s all make-believe, but we all said, This is how we’re going to do it. We all decided that these are the rules that we feel are best to live by. The truth is they’re just rules we all made-up. If everybody decides we don’t want to do this anymore then we stop doing it and it ceases to be the reality of the moment. This is the construct we built in order to form a more perfect union. He’s come up with this idea of The Kingdom, and it was a role that people entrusted him with.

How did you film those scenes with Shiva? My understanding is that it was a mix of an animatronic tiger and CGI.
Yeah, there was an animatronic tiger there that I was working with, but then they pulled it away after I got used to the size of the tiger and everything, and I was petting the air next to me, just in case they wanted to have moments where it was the computer-generated tiger. There were several pieces of it. There’s the tiger that’s sitting, the tiger that’s standing, and then there was just the head that they moved around. Then they were like, okay, we’re going to try and do this without anything, and fortunately I spent a lot of time being a weird kid and pantomiming things, so I would put my hand on her back where there was no back, and they drew the tiger right underneath my hand. It was an amazing process.

Did it take a long time?
Yeah. We did the scene, oh god, an untold amount of times. When you’re using computer effects, you’ve got to shoot from every angle and all of these different scenarios in order to make sure they have enough information to put in the tiger, and all the shadows work, and it doesn’t seem out of place. It was an all-day process every time we had the tiger around.

You’re like one of those guys with the leashes with the invisible dog.
Yeah, exactly. They just drew in my dog, and my dog happened to be a tiger.

What was the audition process like?
Well, it was a big monologue. It was mostly that scene that Carol and Ezekiel have in the garden there when he’s trying to convince her to stay. I had about three days to flesh it all out and figure out that transition from going from this Shakespearean, over-the-top way of expressing yourself and then dropping down into something that’s more grounded in a regular American vernacular. You don’t get that kind of audition very often where it’s literally four pages of you telling a character’s entire story. It was a uniquely wonderful audition experience and uniquely exhausting. I remember walking out of the audition and taking a deep breath and just thinking to myself, man, I’m exhausted, because that’s an emotionally exhausting scene to break down yourself in front of somebody. But I also felt like if I come out of it exhausted, I might have also done something right.

Were there other things about Ezekiel’s backstory that you filled in for yourself to flesh him out?
Oh, yeah. I’m always trying to fill in the details. The problem is that any details I fill in, Scott Gimple is going to come back and tell me how wrong I was. They’ll be like, “That’s not it at all,” and I was like, “Why don’t you tell me?” He was like, “We didn’t know.” He drives me nuts. He literally gives me just enough to get by. So if you think that the audience is in the dark, so are we. I love him to death, but he drives me nuts.

The Walking Dead’s Khary Payton on King Ezekiel